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Hope for the Best: Auburn edition

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The climb to the top of the mountain gets steeper for the Tide, and it begins this week against a hated rival in what could be a game for the ages

Auburn v Georgia
Can Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham miracle the Tigers to another win over Alabama?
Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

Undefeated. Untarnished. 11-0. That’s where the Crimson Tide finds itself after the rigors of the SEC schedule, the West’s representative in the SEC Championship Game against Georgia.

The road has been rugged, to say the least. Sure, Bama cruised through games against conference opponents like Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. But that’s not to say there weren’t hazards along the way…that much is known. In pursuit of that perfect record, Alabama had to stare down its closest SEC neighbor Mississippi State’s defense, probably the best defense in the conference this season not found in Tuscaloosa or Athens. The Tide had to survive another physical battle against LSU several weeks ago that was a gritty and tough a game despite Alabama’s command on the scoreboard.

Now, on the brink of yet another SEC Championship game, the Tide stands as one of only four unblemished programs in the nation, a paragon of gridiron excellence, a gladiator that has defeated all comers to date. A fifth consecutive trip to the College Football Playoffs is not only possible, but likely. Even if the Tide suffers a loss in its final two contests, Alabama has probably designated itself as one of the four best teams in the country (though admittedly, the Committee has proven itself somewhat fickle during its history).

That crown will not be bestowed without a few final pitched battles. The SEC East Champion in Georgia awaits. First, the Tide must defeat a familiar foe that has in recent memory upset Alabama’s title hopes in unlikely fashion, and left the Crimson Tide with another painful moment for sports commentators to regale ad nauseum. One only needs to look as far back as last year when top-ranked Alabama went into Jordan-Hare to play its underdog foe, only to emerge with a loss.

In this time of high Tide, Auburn has been little more than an occasional afterthought, save for two voodoo-powered seasons (2010, 2013). It’s true the Tigers have made two appearances in the National Championship Game since Saban has been in Tuscaloosa. It’s almost as if there is some strange symbiosis between the two teams that propels not only Alabama, but their cross-state rival, to greater things. Granted, Auburn only seized the brass ring in one of those chances, while Alabama has gained five additional championships under Saban. But considering that their century-old football program has only one other championship (0.5 if you’re a hater) in the span of time before Saban’s arrival in Tuscaloosa, a case could be made from a statistical standpoint.

The Auburn team of 2018 has been surprisingly resilient, to be sure. After a rocky first half of the season that featured losses to a subpar LSU team, a solid-if-unspectacular Mississippi State team, East champion Georgia, and a downright terrible Tennessee squad, Auburn has been reeling and treading water. They opened with a strong volley over top-five ranked Washington, but it’s been downhill since then. The defense has taken a step back since last season, and their offense has been forced to abandon the run thanks in part to despicable offensive line play. Even pre-season Heisman quarterback Jarrett Stidham has not been able to ignite a spark in the offense, and Malzahn’s patented trickeration-laced Power Spread offense has been figured out and snuffed by elite defenses.

That said, the Auburn defense is still a legitimately good unit, even if they are not quite as good as their 2017 incarnation. Kevin Steele, a former Saban assistant who also spent time at LSU, has done a masterful job in his three-year tenure of hemming together the talent left by three previous coordinators over a four-year span. He has created a spread-killing defense that is built to squelch exactly what Alabama does so well. Even still, the all-knowing sages of Vegas have installed the Tigers as an almost 25-point underdog against the Tide’s prolific unit led by Tua Tagovailoa. It seems the Tigers face an uphill battle in Tuscaloosa this Saturday to be sure.

How can Auburn, a team that lost to a limited LSU squad, possibly beat the once and future king of college football? Will Alabama really falter in the final stanza of what has been a surprisingly efficient season, with a stout defense that is feeling its power and a Heisman-candidate quarterback who has taken the Tide offense to the next level this season? Does Auburn have enough offense to squeak past the Tide defensive partition, even if the Tiger D does its job and limits Tagovailoa and keeps the offense in check?

Those answers are upon us, as we wait on the prickly points of pins and needles. For now, let’s take a closer look…

The Alabama offense versus the Auburn defense

Quite simply, this is where the game will be won or lost. Unlike previous recent match-ups between the two teams, this year’s edition of the storied Iron Bowl is unlikely to devolve into a high-scoring, gun-slinging offensive shootout. While Alabama has one of the country’s most prolific offenses, particularly when it comes to the passing game, both teams likewise have stonewall defenses that are excellent against the run.

Auburn’s rush defense is ranked 43rd nationally, giving up 142 yards per game. That number is not Alabama-low, but it is respectable when one considers that the Tigers have played the likes of Texas A&M, Mississippi State, LSU, and Georgia. Using advanced metrics, the picture is even clearer, as Auburn is ranked 23rd in rush defense S&P+, which is a good indicator that their defense against teams that run the ball prolifically has been relatively sturdy.

But the raw numbers don’t really indicate why this may be a difficult match-up for Alabama. The only other defense Bama has played of late that is ranked as highly as Auburn’s in terms of rush defense is Mississippi State. As we saw several weeks ago, the Bulldogs were able to limit the Tide rushing attack, which would indicate that as good as Bama has been on the ground when Deonte Brown has been in the game at left guard, they can be stopped if their offensive line struggles (such as when Brown is out of the game with an injury). Auburn has the kind of defensive front – large, physical, and veteran – that much like MSU’s front, can present unique problems in the trenches.

Auburn is built to have the same kind of success, only through a different path altogether. The Tigers have weapons at end and tackle, as the defensive line is the strength of the defense. Derrick Brown (6-5, 325 pounds), Dontavious Russell (6-3, 320 pounds), and Nick Coe (6-5, 282 pounds) are all potential NFL prospects, and in Steele’s spread-killer defense, they have thrived in their new roles.

Against traditional pro-style teams, they can bring the pain in the pass rush and stuff the run between the tackles. But against spread teams, Steele uses the talent in innovative ways to attack what the spread does best, thus turning the strength of the spread offense back upon itself. Where many spread teams evacuate one side of a formation to create overwhelming numbers to the playside, Steele will have a wave of defenders offset that numbers advantage by attacking the weakened side of the offense to run the play down from behind. He can do that because he has elite speed and talent at the end in Marlon Davidson and Coe, and sure-fire block eaters in the center in Brown and Russell who can hold the point and let the pursuers run free.

Unlike what LSU did in the past two years, Auburn’s defense will not focus on the mesh point per se. Of course, they’ll disrupt it when the opportunity presents itself, but where LSU put a target on it, Auburn will instead play a numbers game on the edge. They’ll pull a bait-and-switch with Coe as the read defender, as he is athletic enough to sell an inside bite to the QB before breaking out and running down the laterally-tracking QB on keeps. He can also stay at home to force the inside give when Alabama is in a zone look, knowing that the Tiger scheme has those internal gaps filled with two-gapping linebackers and roving safeties.

The system has a great many moving parts, but the result is that it robs from the spread RPO offense the advantage of time created by a QB’s quick reads and subsequent reactions. The longer the defense can force the quarterback to hesitate at or behind the line of scrimmage, the more likely the play will generate a minimal gain. In a way, the Auburn’s defense is not as aggressive as the one LSU employed: it’s the run defense equivalent of a “mush rush,” in some ways. With Auburn’s D, there’s always the chance that the QB will find a receiver breaking open the longer the play goes, but with athletic defenders who can run a play down from sideline to sideline, typically, there isn’t enough time to execute a scramble passing attack with consistency.

Last year, Auburn was able to stop a struggling Alabama offense that relied strictly on the ground game for production as Jalen Hurts struggled in the air as the season progressed. Therefore, Steele and the Auburn defense could safely crowd the box and create overloads in an attempt to force Hurts to the air, where the Tigers were well-equipped to be disruptive. This year, however, Alabama has pivoted to the pass, so Auburn will be forced to drop into more nickel and dime looks to deal with all of the Bama receiving talent on the field. Auburn would rather deal with the running game with standard personnel than give up big play after big play on the back end, so expect Alabama to try the underneath with the running game and short passing attack if the Tigers smother receivers with extra personnel in the secondary.

What can Alabama do to take advantage of such a defensive game plan? There are several vectors to Tide success on offense, but they all start with sticking to the run early to gain intel and diagnose what the Tigers plan to do to counter the Tide O. Bama OC Mike Locksley has proven himself capable of developing brilliantly conceived, rhythmic game plans that exploit opponent weaknesses. Because of the array of offensive weapons at Tua’s disposal, the offense can dispatch an opponent in any number of ways with equal efficiency.

Expect Alabama to try some runs early, whether they are runs to the edge, or some of the inside zone stuff with the running backs that Alabama retained from last season that works well to counter defenses. Locksley will watch what Auburn does. He’ll figure out which players react to particular movements in the Tide offense. As the picture becomes clear, he will be able to scheme against those movements, put Auburn on their heels, and attack vacated areas revealed by the tendencies both in the passing and running games. Tua has been masterful in reading defenses and optioning into the right RPO call this year. That will give the Tide offense a leg up, and will keep the Tigers off balance, as was the case when the Tide played the MSU defense a few weeks ago.

For example, if Auburn consistently keeps the read defender at home and draws a safety down to provide run support and stretch the edge running play wide, there are plays to be made on myriad screens and the slants between the hashes. Locksley can build these options into RPOs for Tagovailoa to use if he reads those Tiger reactions at the snap, and even if they aren’t game-breaking explosive plays, they will help string together the sorts of long drives that will ultimately place the nails in Auburn’s coffin. If Steele wants to use man-1 blitzes to press the Tide on third-and-longs, then there will be opportunities for Tagovailoa to option to a run and gain a mismatch with a big back on a safety, or take advantage of likely skill position mismatches when, say, a Tiger linebacker is asked to cover Josh Jacobs.

Once Locksley has a handle on what the Tigers are trying to accomplish, there will be plays for the Tide offense to make. The question will be whether Hurts, who will be playing in his first Iron Bowl as a starter, will be able to execute in the moment, particularly when opportunities present themselves for big plays to be made in the passing game. Tagovailoa has never been in a moment that appeared beyond him, as evidenced by his clutch TD in the championship game and his performance in the hostile confines of Death Valley (at night, mind you) this season. Tua could have a tremendous day against a Tiger defense that, while not anemic against the pass (they’re ranked 46nd in pass defense, 16th in team passing efficiency defense, and 15th in pass defense S&P+), is not an elite secondary in terms of personnel.

One other key will be the play of Alabama’s offensive line. As previously stated, the strength of the Tiger defense is its front four, which is as good as any team in the conference not named Alabama. With Coe, Brown, Russell, and junior end Marlon Davidson (6-3, 282 pounds), the Alabama line will have its hands full in protecting Tua and his oft-discussed knee. The Tide line is dinged up heading into the game, with Brown still battling the effects of a turf toe (though he has practiced some this week) and right guard Alex Leatherwood dealing with injuries of his own. If those two can’t go, Alabama will have to insert the embattled Lester Cotton at LG and untested Josh Casher at RG. The Tigers have shown they can dominate the point of attack against solid offensive lines, and Coe is an elite NFL-talent as a pass rusher (he has seven sacks on the season and 13.5 tackles for loss).

They will come after Tagovailoa…there’s no doubt about that. Like several other opponents before them (eh-hem LSU and MSU), they’ll likely go low and try to put a helmet on Tua’s ailing knee. Against other elite pass rushers this year, Alabama has had a mixed bag of results. While Alabama’s “sacks allowed” metric is exemplary (they’re ranked ninth nationally, allowing 10 sacks total in 2018), those sacks have too often been costly because they resulted in the Tide’s potential Heisman candidate taking unnecessary hits that have left their lasting scars. Alabama’s line has been elite when it comes to pass blocking this season, and they’ll need to continue to protect their quarterback in a high-stakes game that will impact the championship race if the Tigers hit Tua with impunity.

The Tide’s best lineman has been left tackle Jonah Williams, but he’ll likely draw the nasty duty of matching up against Coe on the edge. Williams doesn’t seem to struggle against lighter, faster ends as much as previous Bama left tackles, but handling Coe play-in and play-out is a tall task indeed. Williams will need to play the best game of his career to date to keep the Tiger Buck in check. That said, to his credit, Williams faces off routinely against Bama’s elite edge-rushing athletes, so he may be well-prepared for dealing with the likes of Coe.

For Alabama, the overall strategy is the same as it has been all year: keep the chains moving with a balanced attack that touches all corners of the field. Take the explosive plays in the passing game when they present themselves. Run the ball when the box loosens. Grind. Win the point of attack up front. Let the defense do its job, and keep control of the ball and field position to keep the D fresh. It’s a simple recipe, no matter what spices Locksley throws into the pot to achieve those ends. If Alabama can march the field consistently and extend a three touchdown lead on the scoreboard in the first half, the prospects for a Tide win will be great as the Tigers’ depth becomes an issue late, as was the case when Bama played LSU and MSU. The Tiger offense can’t win an offensive drag race against the Tide this season, even if the Bama defense wasn’t playing its best ball of the year. If Alabama builds an early lead, Alabama will win going away.

The Auburn defense has proven itself this season, and the Tigers are a worthy adversary. What they do is simple schematically, and they play aggressively and with speed as a result. They can disrupt what Alabama does best, and the Tide won’t be able to rely on brute force to get the job done this time around against the Tigers. Much like his players, Locksley will need to be on top of his play-calling game, and Tua will need to take yet another step forward to keep the Auburn defense honest. With Alabama’s offensive firepower and Auburn’s defensive weak spots, there’s no reason to panic.

But, if the Tide offense struggles or if Tua reaggravates his knee, the outcome could also be the kind of defensive stalemate Alabama saw in the first half of last week’s game with a single explosive play from either offense being the deciding factor. Auburn has the defense to confound Alabama if the offense is out of synch, if Locksley has trouble diagnosing tendencies, if Tagovailoa struggles with his knee, or if the offensive line can’t stave back the Tiger penetration from the pass rush. The Tiger defense is the key, as their performance will determine whether Auburn stays in the game. The Tiger offense will not shred Alabama’s D, so the whole venture for the Plainsmen rests upon their defense keeping Alabama’s offense in check, putting the ball in the hands of the Tiger O, and keeping the score close late into the game.

The Alabama defense versus the Auburn offense

The battle on the other wise of the ball will be more straightforward, but much less daunting. Auburn will seek to execute its Power Spread running game with a modestly mobile quarterback and an unimpressive running game behind an offensive line that has been mediocre at best for much of the season. Auburn’s offense has struggled with elite defenses this year, and they’ll face the best one they’ve played yet in Tuscaloosa this weekend.

As the season has progressed, the Tide defense has become a difficult puzzle to solve for most offenses that depend on the run. Alabama is a top-10 defense, ranked seventh in total defense (282.1 yards allowed per game), allowing a respectable 112.5 yards on the ground (good for 17th). The Tide has played the same excellent rushing teams the Tigers have played, and the result is a 30+ yard differential in average number of yards allowed. What Alabama is doing defensively against the run in 2018 is the same thing it’s been doing for years, and there’s no reason to believe that a struggling Auburn running game with modest air support in the passing game can do much to offset that trend.

Auburn is not currently an excellent rushing team, as they generally have been under Malzahn’s leadership. They are ranked 69th nationally with 167.2 yards per game (70+ yards less per game than in 2017 at this point), though their rushing S&P+ ranking is only 84th. Though Auburn has taken a running back by committee approach, the two leading rushers are Kam Martin (5-10, 193 pounds) and JaTarious Whitlow (6-0, 216 pounds), and along with Stidham’s injection of a passing game, the RB/QB combo has carried the Tiger offense this season behind an offensive line featuring several first-time starters up front and a substantial drop-off from last year’s excellent O line.

Everyone knows what to expect out of the Tiger offense. It will be run-heavy. They’ll let the line try to do the work up front. They’ll put Martin and Whitlow in the pistol, sometimes with lead-blocking fullback Chandler Cox or Spencer Nigh out front, and try to gash the middle of the Bama D. For a change of pace, they’ll use Martin and his speed to break to the edge, whether through the running game or with screens. Then Stidham will set up the play-action and hope to catch Bama’s secondary sleeping with one of his Hail Mary-style downfield passes. There will be lots of motion, lots of misdirection, all in an effort to obfuscate with eye-candy and keep the Tide defense on their heels.

The Tigers may have decreased chances this year due to Stidham’s addition to the Auburn backfield, as he has displayed some acumen in the passing game that his predecessors lacked. That said, he isn’t Johnny Football 2.0, and even his sharpness as a passer could be argued. Last season, Stidham made Alabama pay with his legs, which caught the Tide defense off-guard. After all, Stidham rushed for 51 of his 150 yards for the season against Bama in 2017. The Auburn wide receivers aren’t necessarily an elite group, though Stidham at least distributes the ball well (four of the top eight receivers have in excess of 200 yards receiving on the season). Still, the Tigers bring the nation’s 81st ranked passing offense into the game (214.6 yards per game), with the advanced metrics bettering their station (they are ranked 15th in passing S&P+.)

Auburn’s passing game is an outgrowth of the running game, and Stidham’s “heave-ho” quarterbacking style depends on the AU receivers beating their coverage and basically winning the battle for jump balls when the QB fires the ball downfield. The Auburn receivers don’t run particularly sharp routes, honestly: they generally make a quick first move to create separation, run to a loose zone that Stidham tries to hit (rather than a precise route and pass), then they use ball skills to make the reception. Stidham’s accuracy is a problem for the Tiger offense, but he has connected on enough downfield plays to give the Tiger O some production. Auburn may not have the sharpest passing game, but Stidham is a 61.6 percent passer who has had decent success with the deep ball.

While Alabama’s front seven started slower than usual in the pass rush, the emergence of Quinnen Williams at the nose has propelled the Bama pass rush to great heights as the season progressed. The Tide defense has 37 sacks on the season, tying Alabama for seventh nationally. After a few years of Jeremy Pruitt’s secondary-blitz tactics, the Tide is back to generating pressure with the big men up front. But the end result is the same, and Alabama continues to be disruptive to opposing passing games (they are ranked eighth in team passing efficiency defense, fifth in passing S&P+, and 10th in passing defense, allowing 169.6 yards per game on average).

After struggling with FCS opponent The Citadel and their triple-option offense in the previous game, the Bama defense will have a collective chip on their shoulder this week, a fact that will be amplified by the nature of the rivalry game. And with an offensive line in Auburn that has allowed 20 sacks this season (45th nationally), expect the Tide to add to their sack totals this Saturday. The forge in the heart of the Alabama defense will be superheated for this game, and the results will be an Auburn backfield constantly under duress.

Against Alabama’s pass defense/ secondary, Auburn may complete short passes, but it won’t be the explosive type that will be needed to make Alabama release their grip on the line of scrimmage. That said, Alabama could play a lot of nickel if they wanted to, since the “nickel rabbits” package will allow the Tide to get ferocious pressure with four or five rushers on every down without paying a price on the back end. (Such is the beauty of a roster loaded with 4- and 5-star players coached up by the best staff in college football.)

The best hope for the Tiger offense is that the Auburn defense can keep the game close going into the closing stanza of the game. At that point, a single Crimson Tide mistake could spell the difference in the game. A single breakdown, a single blown assignment, a single broken tackle. Those mistakes could change the game if the score is close, but if the Bama offense does its job, it won’t be. Despite the heroics of The Citadel last week, the fact remains that Alabama has not surrended a touchdown to an SEC opponent since October. Auburn has a decent team overall, but they’re still not on Alabama’s level. If the Tide defense can lock down the Tiger running game, harass the passer, and generate a few turnovers, then the Bama offense can get away with a middling performance en route to a Tide victory.

Special Teams

Re: the Alabama kicking game…let’s just not. The punting has been nice with Mike Bernier taking over duties. Enough said.

The return game continues to be bottled up since no one wants to kick to Josh Jacobs or Jaylen Waddle. That has to end sometime, and it would just make sense for that to occur against Auburn. (I’ll go out on a limb and predict a big return for one of the Tide’s two return men.)

Auburn’s kicking game has been uncharacteristically shaky as well, at least in terms of place kicking. Anders Carlsen, brother of former can’t-miss AU kicker Daniel, has taken over kicking duties with dubious results. He’s 15-of-25 heading into the game with Bama, though in fairness, seven of his misses came at distances greater than 50 yards. That stat is a little telling about the nature of Auburn’s offense in 2018, as well. He has hit a long of 53, so Carlsen can still be considered a weapon inside of 40 yards. The punter is Arryn Sposs, and he has a respectable average of 44.7 yards per punt with a long of 60.

The return men for the Tigers are explosive, with Noah Igbinoghene (5-11, 196) and Whitlow handling the kick returns. Whitlow has a return for a touchdown this year, and is a dangerous returner with a 32.5-yard per return average. Whitlow is solid as well with an average of 26.6 yards per return. Receiver Ryan Davis (5-9, 185 pounds) and defensive back Christian Tutt (5-11, 195 pounds) handle punts. Davis averages 10.55 yards per return with a long of 48, while Tutt averages 20.33 with a long of 32 yards.

It’s time for the Tide’s final ascent to the top to begin. But before they can plant their flag atop the SEC and continue on to the summit of collegiate football, they must first scale one last rocky crag, one remaining precipice that is nearly as old as the programs that will participate in this Saturday’s edition of the Iron Bowl.

The game has produced unexpected outcomes before, but the series is not a “throw the records out the window” situation if history is to be believed. However, this year Bama is a 24.5-point favorite, and all signs point to this edition being a potential blowout in favor of the Tide. However, it will be a game that is the polar opposite of 2014’s defenseless shootout, as both defenses this season have far too much talent, and too much pride, to allow that kind of dynamic to develop.

While many consider the Tigers a little deflated as a four-loss team, one need only look at the stats and the schemes Auburn uses to envision a scenario in which this game is much closer than expected heading into the final stages. At this point, the Tigers are playing towards a middlin’ bowl game in some unexotic location, and there are no titles or playoff appearances on the line. Their season comes down to this game against Alabama, in front of a hostile crowd. They will give the Tide everything they have to defend their pride and begin building a streak of Iron Bowl wins like the one they enjoyed during the Tuberville era. Not to mention, a win over Alabama would likely further bolster Malzahn’s job security, and become a jewel in the crown of the program that could easily erase the four losses suffered in the eyes of the Auburn faithful.

For Alabama, the stakes are infinitely higher. The Tide is playing for perfection, something only one other Saban-coached Tide championship team has ever achieved. Alabama still must win in the SEC Championship Game to be guaranteed a seat at the playoff table, and a loss to Auburn would require the intervention of Football Loki to legitimately keep the Tide’s playoff hopes moving forward. If the Tide beats Auburn, even a loss in the championship game would still probably leave them in the top-4 teams when the committee makes its final selections.

Then there is the subject of pride, or bragging rights. The players on this year’s Tide squad know well the pain and suffering that comes on the tail of a loss to the Tigers, as it happened last year. The taste of blood is still in the mouths of the Alabama players that lost last year to Auburn, and they’ll want their reckoning. The leadership of this Tide team knows what it means to lose this game, and one can believe they’ll leave nothing on the field so long as victory remains in their grasp.

Will Auburn do the unthinkable this weekend and bask in the joy of spoiling the perfect season of their most hated rival? Will the Auburn defense replicate the effort of MSU in holding the potent Alabama offense to the flames? Can the Auburn offense be productive enough against Alabama’s patchwork defense to muster a win in even the most low-scoring of games?

Or will Alabama prove Vegas prescient with a blowout victory powered by the Tide’s lightning-strike passing game? Can Tagovailoa cement his Heisman campaign by taking advantage of the opening presented by the Auburn secondary? Will Alabama’s defense pitch a winning effort against the despised Auburn Tigers to earn its place in Crimson Tide lore?

Those answers and more await us on Saturday afternoon. The stakes are now higher than they’ve been at any point this season…hope for the best.